Post pet-trick thoughts on interactivity in an art context

One of the issues with presenting interactive work in an “art” context, whether this is a gallery/museum space or some other form of art publishing, is that the interaction of the work has to either be extremely obvious or involuntary on the part of the viewer/participant, because interaction is so foreign to the gallery context.  This will probably change over time, but at the moment this is still not the way that most people expect to experience art.

The way I dealt with this idea was to make my project have an involuntary interaction.  Imagining it as a gallery installation, my pet trick would appear to be just a box frame from across a room bus as you get closer a stark white LED begins to flicker making the viewer see there is more to it.  As the viewer approached the light glows more intensely and eventually the image of a skeleton cat in shadows is cast by small wooden cut outs that appear as dark lines from afar.  This is an extremely simple interaction.  I thought about more complex interactions that could occur by manipulating the color and placement of the light, which probably would have been too difficult to take on.  But it would have made for an interaction that starts as involuntary and then becomes extremely obvious.

Here are some examples that I think demonstrate these ideas.

Vito Acconci showed us an image of his piece Instant House in his lecture in the first applications class.  This is an extremely obvious interaction.  It’s just a seat swing connected by a large and visible pulley system to the four sides of the house.  The viewer knows intuitively that he/she should sit in the seat to activate the object.  One might be timid to sit on art but I think most people would see that it would be safe.  The interaction and system are very simple.

Carlito Carvalhosa’s Sum of Days installation in the Moma is a good example of an involuntary interaction.  Beyond the fact that the viewer chooses to walk into the installation, once you are in it you are recorded and played back my microphones that are part of the piece.  This is also a simple system and the user has little control, but creates a pretty complex experience.  You could shout and make a lot of noise but you won’t hear it unless you come back 24 hours later.  So you do have the ability to control another users experience of the piece.

I found the Franz Erhard Walther piece at Dia: Beacon to be an example of an interactive work that is over explained, which, to me makes it less effective as an interactive piece.  His pieces, which must be activated by users, are really well made and beautiful, but the interactions are mysterious and need to be explained by pamphlets, and the rules imposed by the museum for interacting with the pieces make it very intimidating to do so.  It wasn’t a pleasant experience.  Although the work is well made and fascinating from the perspective of interactions, the installation and mysteriousness of the work makes it hard to experience.

The Richard Serra pieces at the same museum are in a way interactive work because the viewer inhabits spaces that are designed by the artist.  You can’t change the work but you have a lot of control over the way you experience the work, and this interaction is both very obvious and involuntary.

Another random thought is that screen based work and other works that use complex technology and electronics have the disadvantage of being works that are a hybrid of the artists creation and another company that has built the screen/switch/LED or whatever electronics might be involved.  When using these kinds of electronics the artists loses a certain amount of control/decision making over the design and cultural implication of the finished work.  Because I can’t build a Samsung monitor from scratch (maybe after ITP I’ll be able to) a work of art that uses a screen is not an object completely designed and built by me, which, although this is subjective, to me, takes away from it’s ability to be “art.”  This is why it was important for me to make an object from scratch, and to disguise the electronics that controlled the interaction.  The only intentionally visible object that I didn’t make myself was the switch on the back of the box.  I thought this looked kind of cool, because it is not intuitive that a roughly built wooden frame would have a bright red switch, so I felt that I had some control over the way the red switch is perceived.

I think Ryan Trecartin dealt with this problem effectively with his installation at PS1.  He used projectors and filled the space with lots of furniture and various objects, which made the head phones feel less like part of an technology display and more like part of the installation.


Author: owen ribbit


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